I was born into Siddha Yoga. Baba Muktananda gave me my “spiritual” name, Rajani, when I was only a tiny baby. Rajani, night-time, night-goddess. My mother says he laughed and said it was a good name, and that thereafter I stopped sleeping through the night. My family has dozens of these anecdotes, from the small and silly to the huge and life-changing, that illustrate how well the guru knows us, how much providence comes from Siddha Yoga, how we are in the heart of God. Perhaps any deeply religious family has their stories like this, of prayers answered and visions seen, although very few have the smiling face of an incarnate angel in them, as in ours. When I left Siddha Yoga, my personal mythology, these stories that were the links in the perfect chain towards my enlightenment that my all-knowing and benevolent guru had forged for me, disintegrated, and left me with no spiritual purpose. The decoder ring to my life was gone, and this has always been the most troubling aspect of leaving Siddha Yoga for me. I suppose this would be true for leaving any deeply religious life, and my family was very devoted.
My parents ran the center in our house in Florida when I was a young child, and we visited South Fallsburg in the summers, and one year, Ganeshpuri. However, Siddha Yoga did not have a profound effect on me until the year I was ten, when we didn’t come back from our summer retreat in South Fallsburg. My parents were ecstatic at the once-in-a-million-lifetimes chance to live in the presence of the guru. They were also deeply relived to be able to put hundreds of miles between my teenage sister and her much older, abusive, disturbed boyfriend. To be invited to live in the ashram in a time of such crisis seemed like grace indeed, and it truly was for my sister. From what source, if any, came the grace, I no longer purport to know. That winter my sister began to recover from her time under the sway of a man who had meant her great harm, and I saw my first snow.
Siddha Yoga youths have a childhood that is, in many ways, an enviable one. With very few children as permanent residents in the ashram, the entire community there knows who they are, and all the adults are looking out for them. We were free to roam the grounds in safety, and also to participate in many excellent children’s programming provided as seva by dance and drama teachers, choral directors, writers, etc. After a disastrous semester at the local public school, I was allowed to study with a few other children at the “Learning Center,” the tiny ashram homeschool, where I was given some freedom to study what I was interested in and work at the speed I wished. I also did seva myself in the summers in the barns, the Amrit, and children’s programming, all of which I loved. I loved to feel I was doing meaningful work for God. My life was very sheltered from danger, sexuality, and drugs or other vices.
However, these were also possibly the unhappiest years of my life. I had suffered from extremely low self-esteem and childhood depression previously. As I entered the imbalance of puberty, my mental state took a sharp downward turn into constant contemplation of suicide, uncontrollable sobbing, and physical manifestations of frustrated rage, such as shortness of breath, fainting, and frequent headaches. While I am sure this would have been a difficult time in my development under ideal circumstances, it was unbearable in the ashram. The philosophical viewpoint of Siddha Yoga on emotional pain—that I wouldn’t suffer if I could just be detached, and that if I just let go of myself and my Ego, then I would be blissful and happy—was very detrimental to me, exacerbating feelings of self-loathing and guilt when I was unable to do these things. Additionally, the social structure of the ashram, especially among the children, was rigidly hierarchical, exclusive, and cruel. I was grudgingly allowed to occupy a rung of the social ladder very close to the bottom, where I struggled to be accepted by a peer group determined to snub me for every tiny non-conformity, such as listening to the Beatles instead of Madonna.
I prayed for Gurumayi to make me happy. I was devout. I chanted and prayed, and tried and tried to let go of myself right at that time when I was also just getting a feel for who I was. I slept every night with a teddy bear from Gurumayi that bore a plastic heart reading “Be Happy.” She had given this to me when I was six, after I had asked her why I was sad all time, promising that it would take the sadness away.
I think other ashram children were also depressed to some extent, suffering from the exclusion and taunting, and certainly unhappy with the favoritism the small born-and-bred circle received at the guru’s feet and among her assistants. However, I was a serious child, 11 going on 42, and I took every Siddha Yoga fable to heart. I struggled to understand my “karma” as I watched my playmates receive special attention and gifts from the most important person in my life, and tried to be detached in a situation that felt (and was!) unjust, unfair, so unfair for an 11 year old! I tried and tried to be good enough. I worked to someday be a swami. I wanted the fire in my heart to burn away all my impurities. Adults told me how beautiful I was after I cried and shook in rapture while chanting. This was one of the only outlets I had for displaying difficult emotions.
In fact, we children were very savvy to the roles we were playing for adults in the ashram mythos. Like in other religions, we supposedly represented purity of understanding and devotion; we were symbols of innocence and love, and the power of the guru. Meanwhile, we made fun of the insipid songs we sang at programs, acted cute on video, made up meditation “experiences” for the benefit of our listeners, and gossiped about what visitors wore and how ignorant they were of the complex unwritten codes of conduct in the ashram. We were also humiliated constantly, by the favorites and by Gurumayi’s assistants (I was particularly afraid of Kanta), if we were dressed “wrong,” sat with a slouch, moved too much in programs, asked questions, or broke any other hundreds of unspoken rules, like when I mentioned once that George Afif was married. Most of these “rules” involved the maintaining the shroud of secrecy around Gurumayi. Have you heard the new ashram joke? I can’t tell you, it’s confidential.
I was once chastised for pointing at someone after I had been asked to get their name during darshan. “That one?” I had asked. This was a major breech of darshan girl etiquette, for which I was coldly ignored for the rest of the evening, until I took the hint and left darshan early. We younger girls were supposed to hop up discreetly after people who left expensive or interesting gifts in the dakshina baskets at darshan, and ask them “Gurumayi would like to know your name.” These names were attached to the gifts in the back rooms where they were being sorted. If people resisted telling or asked why, I was to tell them that Gurumayi liked to write thank-you letters to her gift-givers.
Or at least know the names of the ones with money….
There was another aspect to childhood in the ashram. The same friendly “looking out” for the children that made the ashram so safe, had its flip side in an intense level of interference. A male friend and I shared a shy crush at the tender age of 12. We spent a lot of time together, almost entirely in the presence of his brother and other children. Our parents were contacted by the office of teenage affairs (I can’t remember its proper name), and in light of our inappropriate behavior it was recommended that we spend no more than 15 minutes a day together, always in a public place, and perhaps use that to meditate. When my mother told me this, I was shocked. I sobbed and protested. This boy was one of the only children who was actually a friend! We who never even held hands, would die of embarrassment before we admitted a crush, were in danger of some impropriety? Fortunately our parents didn’t have the heart to enforce this dictum. This level of interference seemed unfair then, and unthinkable now. Of course, this was minor compared to what my sister, at 17 or 18, faced. Out of respect for her privacy, I will not relate her own wrenching experiences, but I will say that the control exerted was cultish by today’s standards, and Catholic by those of 50 years ago. Of course, in the ashram the taboo against sex was even greater than among the Christian right, who will talk about saving yourself, setting boundaries and so forth. We were not even supposed to have romantic thoughts; we were to be completely asexual beings. The silence on the subject was oppressive. Feelings of intense shame and denial especially accompanied my awakening bisexuality. Suffice it to say, I was in for a bit of culture shock when I went to boarding school at age 14, where I eventually left Siddha Yoga.
It was at boarding school that I was first asked to explain my belief system to outsiders. As I detailed what I believed, I also clarified the major points for myself:
-That all creation and people are created from the same divine energy, which we honor in many forms, and all deserve respect accordingly
-That all religions worship the same divinity, have saints and holy people, and are paths to experience God
-That my goal was to live with a direct awareness of oneness with this divine energy, which could be achieved through the practices of chanting, meditation, devotion, etc.
-That Gurumayi was our spiritual leader and authority
Explaining these concepts to people began to create questions in my mind, especially when I visited the ashram. I particularly became uncomfortable with the concept of guru. If I was to reach enlightenment through the practices, why did I still need a guru? Why all those other rules? If she was perfect, why did she sometimes contradict herself and her predecessors? If everyone is divine, how come Baba said homosexuals were impure? Enlightened people can’t also be products of their culture, right? Was the environmentally destructive renovation of Lake Nitayanada really respectful of creation? Why did you need to get dressed up and fancy for worship if it was all an illusion anyway? Why did Gurumayi have so many hats and that Jaguar and a helicopter if she was a renunciant? If all paths led to God, then why act like ours was so much better?
It became apparent that what I believed and what was actually taught and practiced at the ashram were different things. Too many things didn’t add up. I sent my pictures of Gurumayi home and quietly exited Siddha Yoga to initiate myself a Wiccan. I continued to chant, meditate, and worship the gods and goddesses I grew up with, but also learned the European neo-pagan systems of magic and belief. I missed, and still do, the unselfconscious and sincere worship of Siddha Yoga, something largely missing from paganism. I also miss worship in a huge group, and the energy rush, and I miss my unwavering faith in God, which has been corroded by skepticism. But I like my life a lot better now, so it’s an okay trade.
I still cringe away from the emotionally charged word “cult,” in all but the most extreme cases. At school I was briefly (but intensely) feared as a witch after my ignorant roommate spread horrified rumors about my bizarre heathen practices, like setting up an altar and chanting short prayers in Sanskrit in the mornings. The few months of bigotry and isolation I experienced were enough to put religious tolerance right at the top of my priority list. (Strangely, it was accepted without incident by my fellows when I became a self-identified “witch” a year later.) I don’t think Siddha Yoga is one of those most extreme cases where I would use the word cult to describe the entire religion. At its rotten core, where the greatest trespasses take place, it is a cult, and I think that has been the experience of many people on this website (leavingsiddayoga.net). But for most people practicing without a huge commitment in their little basement centers, I think it has much the same benefits and shortcomings of any organized religion: on one hand a sense of community, and experience of the Divine, the comfort of prayer, and the benefits of meditation, while on the other, the pettiness, guilt, myopia, mental laziness, and monetary pressure that organized religion always engenders in some of its followers.
When I left Siddha Yoga it was with “no hard feelings.” My family remains in Siddha Yoga to this day, and I didn’t want to hurt any feelings or create a row. I also didn’t know very much about the seamy underbelly of the organization; I left for purely spiritual and emotional reasons. I decided that Gurumayi and Baba were still great beings, just not my path anymore. I began to gently remind my mom to stop quoting Gurumayi to me as the final word on any subject, but that was about it.
Now years later, I suddenly remembered the hubbub over that famous New Yorker article, which I had been discouraged from reading when it was published. I was 13 then, and I was told I didn’t need to pollute my mind and upset myself with such garbage. No elaborations on its contents had been made. I found it online, read it, and found this website, with more stories. Now I find I can no longer keep carefully neutral stance.
Muktananda and Chidvalasananda are charged with some terrible crimes, and I am inclined to believe those who are bringing the claims. However, I also know unquestionably how much good Siddha Yoga did for my mother, who was lifted out of a desperate, self-destructive life by the experience she calls shaktipat and has been able to make peace with an unspeakably terrible childhood through her faith. (It’s the decoder ring phenomenon.) Could she have found that through some other path? Maybe. The world is full of what-ifs. But I can’t deny that while causing insufferable pain to some, Siddha Yoga probably also saved my mother’s life. This is the story of many religions: abuse and salvation. Furthermore, I have also felt some strong, spiritual power in the practice of Siddha Yoga, and particularly in the presence of the guru. And I would object just as much to dismissing the experiences of spiritual awakening felt by myself, my family, and others as I would to dismissing the claims of the victims here.
So can the guru be both holy and abusive, a saint and a rapist? Of course not. Those who try to insist otherwise are performing some astounding mental gymnastics. We must reexamine our thoughts on holiness. Perhaps it is possible for a person to possess great spiritual power without being holy. I wrestle a lot with how to interpret my experiences. I have no idea anymore what sort of energy or power it is that these gurus have, but I know that there have been many great people and charismatic leaders and philanthropists who were also deeply flawed. I guess that truth that I have come term with is this:
I don’t mean that as a cavalier dismissal of terrible crimes; I mean it as a truth that most people already know without “coming to terms,” a rejection of the guru principle. Nobody is perfect, no matter how much power they exude or good they have done. And while I still believe all people deserve respect and compassion, they also need checks to their power and principles to live by, to avoid those deepest flaws and greatest crimes. No one deserves to be worshipped as the greatest master or perfect teacher. There is no such thing. It is my hope that someday all people, particularly my loved ones, will be freed from this mental bondage (and while we’re dreaming, from all mental bondage), that we will have no gurus at all.
Aug. 7, 2003